On Water

Selections from On Water

by Thomas Farber


...The rip pulled us toward the lava at the north  end of the beach, and we had to swim hard to stay there...We ducked the biggest waves that caught us inside.

A quick breath, then down to kick along the sand toward the blue haze outside, the waves cracking, pressure from the white water hissing over us, a cold shadow.

We surfaced on the other side, looked at each other and laughed, surprised again to have made it into the sunlight and air."

                                                --Tino Ramirez

CALL ME QUEEQUEG. Out once more to surf at Tongg's, line-up perhaps two hundred and fifty yards offshore. Storm clouds above the Ko'olaus and over past the cathedral-like mass of Diamond Head, rain beards--gray, grayer--dropping from the low sky, and then suddenly a squall is on us, boards and riders blown downwind, paddling hard into the chop and spray just to hold position. A simultaneous abrupt absence of light: furrows, folds, flanks, buttresses, and crevices of Diamond Head obliterated, waves almost black. Wai and kai, fresh and salt, song of the water planet (Earth-the-misnomer). But then, faster than we can adjust to the change, the sun's reappeared, the water's jade green. And, saying he has to get home, Wended paddles 'Ewa toward Sans Souci Beach.   

            Wendell. "Local" Chinese, in his late fifties/early sixties. Former airline mechanic, grew up in Honolulu. The year before, Wendell arrived one morning--spontaneously generated as if summoned by the waves--out at Tongg's riding high on his massive ten footer, paddling easily, surgical tubing around his waist as a leash. Unorthodox, but effective. No one else there that day, we sat bobbing on the swell, shafts of the boards erect before us, thick plume of smoke rising from the cane fields down toward the Wai'anae range. Watches and clocks irrelevant mechanisms of measure here, time organizing itself into sets and lulls, sets and lulls, Wendell speaking of the change in the color of the water since he was a kid, the loss of clarity/seaweed/ shellfish. We sat silent for a while, gently rising and falling, Diamond Head always again compelling our attention, like the landform obsessing Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Sometimes, clouds scudding behind the volcano's vast bulk as we lifted and dropped, sometimes it seemed we were the fixed point, Diamond Head that must be moving.

"WATER REMAINS A CHAOS," Ivan Illich writes, "until a creative story interprets its seeming equivocation . . . Most myths of creation have as one of their main tasks the conjuring of water. This conjuring always seems to be a division . . . the creator, by dividing the waters, makes space for creation." Illich also writes that "to keep one's bearing when exploring water, one must not lose sight of its dual nature." Deep and shallow, life-giving and murderous, etc. etc.   

            Melville, for instance, reading the mystery of both sea and terra firma: "consider them . . . and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies an insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!"   

            Reading water. "Water represents the unconscious," says the psychologist at the party. The surface the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness. Water in this view thus a form of seductive regression, representing the purely instinctive. As Heraclitus cautioned, "It is fatal for the soul to dissolve in water."

            For instance, naturalist Ann Zwinger, entering the "peaceful, cradling ocean," then looking up from below at the surface, "a silken tent in the underwater wind, gay blue with moving ovals." Dazzled by the "interlocking lozenges of light," she writes: "how simple it is for those who pivot or rasp, supported and fed, adrift in an infinite womb, bathed in a life-support medium full of needed nutrients, needing less to eat than their land-based counterparts, less plagued by temperature fluctuations and desiccation, no need to heat their blood, filled with body fluids with the same osmotic pressure, so needing less protective covering to separate them from an alien atmosphere, suspended easily in this friendly bath without having to battle the incessant pull of gravity."   

            Or consider the vision of author Joan Ocean, who in seeking a name that conveyed "no male lineage," took on the first word that came to her. As she notes in Dolphin Connection, it "was easy to spell, easy for other people to remember, unusual." What's in a name? It was not until seven years later that she first experienced a "symbiotic love for the ocean . . . I accepted completely my personal connection to it, and my responsibility to preserve and respect all of the vast life forms that resided within it." This epiphany came "by 'absorption,'" after she had for the first time been in the water with (captive) dolphins. Soon, Joan Ocean wanted to be a dolphin, which for her meant "to be weightless and buoyant," to "move within the changing currents of water, to feel the earth turn, to slide on the waves, and be surrounded by the varied and unique concerts of sea animals. To play in the sparkling shafts of sunlight and bubbles, to feel the pull of the moon and the stars . . . to have seventy percent of the planet as your intimate and cozy home."     

            Ocean does not mention, however, that dolphins are predators--of squid, lantern fish, shrimp, etc.--and that they have their own predators, including the eighteen-inch "cookie cutter shark," which uses suction to extract large discs of dolphin flesh. More, deep-water dolphins school because it increases their capacity to protect themselves and/or to feed successfully. Lone Ranger dolphins, James Dean dolphins? Apparently not in the Pacific. Nonetheless, Joan Ocean has experienced "commingling with particles of the water," has come to believe that telepathic interspecies messages can be "conveyed on this air-water conduit." (In Rodman's "The Dolphin Papers," it is recorded in cetacean lore that a few human beings will one day make contact with the dolphins, but in one version of this cetacean legend, apparently, the humans never return to their own kind. In others, they return to be imprisoned as lunatics, or, alternately, to implement either a bloodless coup d'état or an "insurrection of all the beasts," which eliminates humans as "irredeemably depraved and dangerous to the planet.")   

            Liquid eyes. For Claudel, "that unexplored pool of liquid light which God put in the depths of our being." And, by extension: "water is the gaze of the earth, its instrument for looking at time." Water perhaps also being the earth's instrument for looking at us. And/or, our instrument for us to look at ourselves. As Melville wrote, Narcissus could not grab hold of the "tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life." Put another way, the story of Narcissus suggests that the images of the self we see in water are not only seductive, but lethal.   

            Reading water. Dylan Thomas' "carol-singing sea," for example. Or that sentient, conscious ocean in Lem's science fiction novel Solaris, capable of diagnosing the hearts of the scientists observing it and, even, of creating for them incarnations of their hungers. One studies the ocean on the planet Solaris, then, only at enormous risk. And always, of course, there are the limits of perception: the ocean on Solaris, Lem seems to be saying, is beyond human ken, whatever the human yearning for "Contact." (Poet Robinson Jeffers, looking west from Carmel, for years studied "the hill of water" which is "half the / planet: this dome, this half-globe, this bulging / Eyeball of water" with "eyelids that / never close", what Jeffers termed "the staring unsleeping / Eye of the earth." And, he concluded, "what it watches is not our wars.")   

            Reading water. "To describe a wave analytically," Calvino wrote, "to translate its every movement into words, one would have to invent a new vocabulary and perhaps also a new grammar and a new syntax, or else employ a system of notation like a musical score." Making a start, Pablo Neruda says, "teach us to see the sea wave by wave." Not a bad aspiration, though Neruda himself is quick to figurative language: the ocean's "gifts and dooms," the "spent comet" of the wave's "scorn and desire." The need of the poet, like Lem's scientists, to make Contact. To name the qualities of even Earth's ocean, Lem seems to be arguing, thus reveals our hungers. Takes us to the limits of our capacities. And beyond.



"THE WIND SPEAKS the message of the sun to the sea," writes Drew Campion, "and the sea transmits it on through waves. The wave is the messenger, water the medium."   

            On the east side of the Big Island of Hawai'i, rain endless, 400 inches a year, soft, quiet, calming. Falling, dropping. Just north of Hilo at Honoli'i park in the afternoon humidity, mosquitoes swarming, the surfers jump into the cold water of Honoli'i Stream--a river, really--and are carried out right to the break. Conservation of energy.   

            Surfers as centaurs, as matadors. Teenage girl springing to her feet up off the board: Minoan dancer vaulting the horns of a bull. The ideal of the great waterman, the master surfer who has no commercial ties, surfs for the thing itself, who does not search for the waves but is, rather, found by them. Syncopation of the surfer, against the beat of the wave. Surfing is carving, they say; surfing is shredding. Surfers and time, slowing the wave down, speeding it up. The recurring mystery of moving toward the approaching wave instead of fleeing from it. Then taking the drop, trying not to wipe out. Impact zone. Boneyard.   

            At Makaha on O'ahu, several older surfers on long boards sweep back and forth, elegantly, deliberately, like dinosaur herons or cranes from the Pleistocene, kids on short boards playing like porpoises, doing 360's as they hit the backwash from the shorebreak off the steep beach, and then, unbelievably, not stopping but surfing the backwash out against the flow, weaving through the incoming human traffic. Such artistry eliciting more and more and more from the waves until, in from so unutterably far away, the waves finally expire. As they would have anyway, this exuberant grace a gain without sacrifice of anyone or anything, a rare--impossible?--interaction of humans and the environment. Beyond the laws of physics: nothing lost.   

            These children at play, singing the song of the sea. What Whitman called the "inbound urge" of the waves. Pulse of the planet. This light, this air. As Keats wrote, "The moving waters at their priestlike task of pure ablution."   

            One's life passes before one's eyes. That is, just how much of your life would you give to be in such a medium in such a way?



© Thomas Farber, 1994